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The Future of Sustainability According to the MIT Sustainability Innovation Summit

A Bright Future for Sustainability

Wrapping up the MIT Sustainability Oriented Innovation Summit, final keynote speaker Dan Esty left us inspired. Dan is the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. Among other accomplishments, he is an author, professor, and has served in a variety of senior positions at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Dan’s speech began with a positive review of the progress society has made in the world of sustainability and ended with his five point plan for reaching a sustainable future.

A Fresh Approach to Sustainability

In a brief overview of the previous year, Dan spoke to the progress our world leaders have made within the sustainability movement. The Pope issued his encyclical which declared our moral and ethical responsibilities to solving sustainability. The Paris Agreement brought the world’s leaders together and helped us frame sustainability in terms of solutions and incentives rather than targets and timetables. The UN framed sustainability goals that broadened our focus from climate change to a wider scope including social issues, economic fairness, and trade issues

The progress made over the last year was punctuated by a cultural shift of acknowledgement around the meaning and need for sustainability. This is significant because our world leaders moved away from the idea that the solution is going to come from the top down and acknowledged that it’s going to come from the bottom up. With this new frame of mind, world leaders are working to spur sustainability through new government programs that support innovation in the private sector.

Delivering a Sustainable Future

1. Innovation

Leading his five point plan, Dan opened with our need for innovation. He stressed that the status quo is not getting us where we need to go and we must break the pattern. In his experience working in government at the EPA, he learned a critical lesson: It’s hard to make change. In order to make impactful change in our environment and society, we need to change our perspective and innovate in all areas including policy, finance, and partnerships, not just technology. Our success in delivering a sustainable future is dependent on how well we can innovate to address problems. Namely, we need to innovate the way we educate the public so they become part of the solution, not the problem.

2. Integration

Sustainability is not a problem that is solved piece by piece. Instead, we need to look at it as whole, understand how the pieces fit together, and work toward a common goal. Energy, the environment, and the economy are traditionally addressed as separate issues. It’s time for us to accept that they are deeply intertwined and cooperate to find solutions.

Collaboration is another critical piece. Local, state, federal, and international governments must be able to cooperate so we can address our short term problems and also bring our obligations for the future forward to make them a priority today. Dan stressed that we need to collaborate on knowledge. We have the capacity to compute vast data sets and understand the relationship between information better than ever. If data, science, economics, and government all meet at the table we will be positioned for success, but cooperation must come first.

3. Incentives

In order to change behavior we need to create better incentives. Not only economic incentives to support growth of renewable energies, but also incentives for information collaboration. We need to set clear goals and measurable benchmarks for our companies to reach for. It’s all about having a clear path for us to follow. When the goals are clear and the route is planned, we are capable of reaching and overcoming the most difficult obstacles. Environmental, economic, and energy challenges are no exception.

4. Investment

Dan stressed that a major issue preventing us from investing more private capital into renewable resources is the uncertainty of our investments. Once we standardize and normalize sustainability oriented investment, opportunities will open up. Right now there is too much risk and assessment slowing the investment process down.

Standardization in areas such as inspections and certifications will make the sustainability oriented business model more normal and secure, reducing the risk of investment. As our infrastructure for the processes needed to make environmentally friendly transitions increases, more opportunities for private investment will arise. Bringing the point home, Dan gave us a listen into the future of what the decision process should sound like, “This is already a project we’ve done 50 of. We don’t need to spend a lot of time running it through our ‘risk’ committee”.

5. Implementation

Dan brings his plan to a finish with one last call to action. We need to get results on the ground. We need corporations to become champions of the sustainability movement so others will follow. In full collaboration, we need to innovate, incentivize, invest, and integrate so we can get results, measure success, and learn from our wins and losses.

In a final question and answer segment to end the keynote speech, a few words from Dan summed up much of the MIT SOI Summit. It is a fool’s errand to chase the idea of less consumption. Instead, we should learn to consume in less damaging ways and innovation is the way we do it.

Edited by David Evans | Illustration by Tara Barnett

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